Going into The Thanksgiving Play at Artists Rep I was prepared for a little laughing and a lot of uncomfortable cringing. I’ve come to expect this from modern satires touching on the traumatic legacies of racism in America. They often punch you in the gut when you least expect it. But The Thanksgiving Play, which is receiving its world-premiere production here, proves to be more laughs than cringes. A lot more.
That isn’t to say that playwright Larissa FastHorse isn’t making a smart critique of our country’s inability to grapple with our history. But instead of tackling the entire bloody and complex history of America’s genocide and erasure of its native peoples, she narrows her focus to something simple and unassumingly simple: How do we talk to kids about Thanksgiving?
Set in a classroom, the show opens on drama teacher Logan (Sarah Lucht) and her partner Jaxton (Michael O’Connell). They are the whitest of white upper-class liberals. In the first 10 minutes they:
- Mention shopping at a farmers market.
- Talk about yoga a little too much.
- Constantly try to out-perform each other as the most progressive.
Together, they plan to devise an ethnically sensitive, historically accurate Thanksgiving play for children that also celebrates Native American history month and meets the various objectives set by the school board. To help them in this endeavor they have enlisted local elementary teacher, and obsessive history buff, Caden (Chris Harder) and Alicia (Claire Rigsby), a superficial actress from L.A. hired to provide a Native American perspective.
It doesn’t take long for the whole process to fall apart and descend into absurdity.
There’s a snappy sitcom aesthetic to The Thanksgiving Play. It’s a smart and joke-dense script. FastHorse is adept at comedic banter and clever dialogue; I would gladly watch a TV series if she was the showrunner.
The script is a hilarious illustration of the ineffectiveness of good intentions. The white characters are so concerned with appearing to be good that they cease to do good. They concoct increasingly convoluted versions of a play that only serves to salvage their reputation as they fail miserably at their goal. To fail would make them bad liberals. It is an extension of the idea some white people have that the only thing worse than being a racist is being called a racist. FastHorse also touches on some other hallmarks of ineffectual white allies: Taking up too much space and centering themselves and their feelings in discussions about race.
Despite their fear of failing the characters don’t have quite enough self-awareness to see themselves failing. But instead of skewering them for their repeated transgressions FastHorse uses their increasingly clownish behavior to get her point across: This is not the way they should be doing this.
While the characters are modern tropes we’ve seen before (the hyper progressive feminist, the yoga dude, the uptight geek, the ditzy actress) FastHorse manages to make these characters feel real without crashing them down to earth. Instead she diverts from the issues from time to time, allowing them to talk about other aspects of their lives and reveal what drives them. And the desires that drive these eccentric characters are surprisingly simple, making them vulnerable. She manages to make them more relatable as their behavior becomes stranger.
But while FastHorse treats these characters sympathetically, she never gives them a pass on their failings. The audience sees through these people.
The production is wisely subdued, letting FastHorse’s voice lead. Director Luan Schooler grounds the show with a realistic design and keeps the actors on the fine TV-sitcom line between reality and absurdity. Everything feels plausible.
The cast brings warmth to the characters – enough to make them likable but not so much that you won’t see through their flaws. The comic timing is solid between everyone, and it makes the snappy dialogue feel very natural. Harder has some amazing moments as the unassuming history buff, building his character’s eccentricities slowly.
The only moments I truly cringed were between scenes. During these moments videos played of children performing Thanksgiving plays for their schools. FastHorse created these plays based on actual children’s show scripts she found online. Watching children earnestly (and sometimes unenthusiastically) preform the whitewashed Thanksgiving story adds a subtle reminder of what’s at stake: the perpetuation of these narratives.
There’s a definite value to art that’s gonna punch you in the gut. The play that holds the mirror up and then smashes your face against it. But The Thanksgiving Play is another kind of play. It holds the mirror up and says, “Hey, look at this clown.” And you laugh because you see your own ridiculous behavior. And hopefully you think, Next time, I’ll try to do better.
The premiere production of The Thanksgiving Play continues through April 29 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.